THE BLOG

If Gun Control Doesn't Work, Why Does Congress Need Metal Detectors?

12/19/2012 08:30 am ET | Updated Feb 18, 2013
  • Larry Womack Writer, layabout and all-around nogoodnik; web publisher; former Associate News Editor, The Huffington Post

The last major gun control effort passed by Congress was the 1994 Federal Assault Weapons Ban, a largely toothless effort it has since allowed to expire. Since that came and went, there have been more firearm massacres in the U.S. than we care to count. Through all of those, the federal government has sat silently by while states passed laws allowing people to carry guns onto playgrounds and into movie theaters, schools, bars and churches. Vermont even allows 16-year-olds to purchase and carry concealed handguns legally, without so much as a permit. So long as that 16-year-old isn't carrying it into a bar or R-rated movie, of course.

Or into the U.S. Capitol. Members of Congress, it seems, are very much in favor of controlling the flow of deadly weapons into their workplace. And by "controlling," I mean completely barring the entry of guns into the building -- unless they are worn by someone paid to protect them, of course. If you or I visit the U.S. Capitol or any congressional office building, we can expect to pass through a metal detector.

In fact, it's almost as if the U.S. Congress believes that someone without a gun would have a harder time murdering people. The city surrounding their place of work banned handguns in 1975, too (I'm going to guess that the reason was Virginia), but the courts overturned that law in 2007. Still, you can rest assured that while they're hard at work not doing anything about the flow of guns into your workplace, or your children's school, your local movie theater or even your house of worship, your legislators will be well protected from the threat of gun violence. Unless they happen to be working outside your local supermarket that day, of course.

It's easy to see why they would be so concerned for their own safety. The United States currently has, by a wide margin, the highest number of gun-related deaths of any highly developed country. In fact, our number of firearm-related deaths is nearly three times that of any other nation ranked as "very high" on the Human Development Index. (Or perhaps merely 40 percent higher -- we'll get to that soon.)

If you compare the two lists linked above, you will find that just three nations share the distinction of being ranked "very high" in human development and having unusually high rates of gun-related death: The United States, Canada and Switzerland. You might also note that since the mass shooting on Friday, Switzerland's rate of gun-related death (as listed on Wikipedia) has been updated to a number that cut its previously listed level in half.

The timing is no coincidence. The sudden interest in controlling information about gun violence in Switzerland probably has something to do with the fact that opponents of gun control actually point to Switzerland as evidence that gun proliferation prevents crime. Because of the way its militia is organized, nearly every Swiss household has a gun. Switzerland offers the second highest quality of life on planet Earth. Just 3% of its population is working poor and a mere 3.3 percent is dependent on some form of social welfare. So, opponents of gun control are asking us to believe that the easy availability of guns is what's keeping crime down... in an otherwise idyllic nation with none of the markers we associate with violent crime that still somehow manages to generate three and a half to seven times the gun-related deaths of, say, Ireland. Makes perfect sense, right? Guns for all! Frankly, it doesn't matter which number is correct. Both stink.

It turns out that guns, outside the hands of the military or law enforcement, just aren't any good at preventing crime and, in fact, their presence is associated with an increase in the likelihood of tragedy. Stepping briefly outside the statistics and into the realm of anecdote, we might be wise to remember that access to seven firearms did nothing to save Kassandra Perkins. Access to one, however, was enough to facilitate the murder of Phil Hartman in a moment of rage. That is, it seems, how guns too often equalize power between victim and perpetrator.

That's probably because guns aren't made to shield you from someone else's bullets. Nor are they made to deter, catch or frighten criminals. Guns are made to kill.

Some are designed to kill one thing at a time. In the right hands, these can be pretty useful, because some Americans live in areas in which they face genuine threats from dangerous animals. Even more live in areas where there used to be dangerous animals which have now been driven out by man. That removal of natural predators leaves some animals (like deer) to multiply unchecked and, without the relatively more humane option of allowing hunters to fill that void, can leave entire populations literally starving in the streets come winter. Some people in this country need these guns.

Some also just enjoy them, because they can be used for other things, too -- like punching holes in far away objects, relieving stress and making you feel like a big man. Most people in favor of gun control have no problem with people owning these.

Unfortunately, there are also guns and magazines designed for killing many things quickly and easily. The availability of these weapons outside of the military is something that should bother any sane person a great deal. It doesn't seem to bother our representatives on the other side of the metal detector so much, but I assure you that some of us are pretty concerned.

An AR-15 is "just a tool," they say as if it were designed for gardening, rather than killing as many people as possible, in as little time as possible, with as little effort as possible.

"Cars kill people, too," they say, as if the efficient extermination of humans is exactly what a Ford Focus was designed for, or you didn't need a license to operate and a registration to own one.

"Guns don't kill people, people kill people," they might even say. Like how high speed rail doesn't move people from central to southern China in under three hours, people move people from central to southern China in under three hours. It turns out that having a device specifically designed to do something you could not otherwise achieve kinda helps when you have an urge to do that thing.

And then there is, "criminals will just find another way to do it," which, well,is total bullshit. (There will be more on that later.)

Eventually, people resort to, "If we start banning guns, they'll ban everything! We will have no freedom!" Because responsible levels of gun control will make us just like the totalitarian state of... almost every other free, developed society on planet Earth!

What's especially painful about the slippery slope fallacy is that it's being employed by people who seem fairly oblivious to the fact that they are living in a nation that bans pretty much any object designed to perform an illegal task that does not happen to also be a gun. If the server at your favorite restaurant legally owns a device that can store your credit card information, it is an outrage. If he has one that could kill you and your entire family in a matter of seconds, why that is freedom.

And, finally, there is the truly absurd suggestion that, "If guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns." (Oh no! That means only outlaws have hand grenades!) The people who parrot this ask us to believe that the twenty-year-old suburbanites who tend to carry out these mass shootings have easy access to black market gun runners and that it is simply an astonishing coincidence that the wealthy, industrialized nations with the lowest levels of gun violence also happen to be the ones that most tightly control the ownership and operation of firearms.

The left is nearly as bad when it comes to swallowing the lie that limiting availability is not a staggeringly obvious solution. Michael Moore -- who I am quite certain is very much in favor of reasonable gun control -- made Canada his model of responsible gun ownership in Bowling for Columbine. Yet, you are nearly five times more likely to die of a gunshot wound in Canada than in the UK. This is what we are to aspire to? Thanks, but no thanks. (To be fair, I haven't seen this film in years and he may well have pointed out that Canada's death-by-gun numbers are pretty atrocious, too.)

If we are to believe that the correlation between strict gun control and low rates of gun violence in other industrialized nations really is some sort of incredible coincidence, events in Australia must be taken for nothing short of a miracle. In the 18 years prior to 1996 gun control reforms, that nation saw 13 mass shootings. In the 16 since, they have seen one -- which usually isn't even counted, because the shooter was only able to kill two people before he had to stop to reload (because: gun control) and was apprehended. That wouldn't even count as a mass shooting in the guide to American massacres I linked to earlier. Still, after that incident, Australia reviewed and tightened its gun laws again. Ten years later, there hasn't been another.

Before the gun fetishists start freaking out (as if they hadn't already): it didn't take some sort of total authoritarian prohibition in Australia to achieve this kind of result. It just took common sense gun laws. In fact, there are more guns in Australia now than there were before the 1996 reforms. But, magazine size is limited, weapons designed for war zones can only be owned (in a non-operational state) by collectors and people who own any gun need to be over 18, have a license and keep them stored safely. Exactly what part of that sounds so unreasonable to the average sportsman?

And if you're a gun enthusiast still clinging to the based-on-nothing belief that people will just find other ways of committing gun homicides, here's a little something more from our friends down under:

After the introduction of gun laws, a significant downward trend was evident in total homicides, and the ratio of pre‐law to post‐law trends differed statistically from "no effect" (p = 0.01, table 33).). We conclude that the data do not support any homicide method substitution hypothesis.

In short: when gun homicides declined, all homicides declined. People did not simply commit them another way.

I actually disagree when they conclude that no method substitution occurs, however. There is some evidence to suggest that people who want to go on a violent rampage do try to find other ways when guns are not available. Of course these people do not, in fact, slyly poison 20 school children when a Glock isn't handy or mix up some kind of crazy Joker laughing gas. When guns aren't handy, they seem to use the next best thing: a knife. We've seen this over and over again in China lately. The major difference is that, even when a knife-wielding maniac is able to reach dozens of victims, often every single victim survives. These events aren't showing up as homicides perhaps because homicide wasn't achieved, because it wasn't as easily achievable. Ever hear that expression about taking a knife to a gunfight? It exists for a reason.

Still, too many Americans -- including our lawmakers -- insist on remaining astonishingly obstinate when it comes to any suggestion of responsible firearm regulations. Instead of common sense solutions, they repeat bizarre myths and offer idiotic distractions. It's as if every time a white suburbanite picks up a gun, half the country suddenly becomes your crazy grandfather, claiming that the same violent films and video games that kids in Australia, Ireland and Britain are watching and playing are somehow compelling only Americans to go on shooting sprees. It's an... unique idea, to say the least. (Let's not even talk about what they're watching in Japan, which has -- through strict gun control efforts -- virtually eliminated gun violence altogether.)

Not that it would matter if these things were somehow magically compelling only Americans to shoot up their local malls. Contrary to popular belief, sometimes the most effective solution is not, actually, attempting to remove every underlying motive or eliminate every contributing factor. Sometimes it's just using the most effective solution at your disposal.

To be clear, I am definitely not saying that our health care system doesn't need a top-to-bottom overhaul. It does. What I am saying is that by far the most effective, proven solution at our disposal is a major, common sense reform of our gun control laws, and that there is no good reason not to do it.

In the meantime, try carrying a violent video game or film into the Capitol. Go ahead, I've done it before. They let you right in.

So I have a challenge for members of Congress: if you truly believe that gun proliferation, not gun control, is the best way to combat gun violence, remove the metal detectors from the Capitol entrances and don't bring them back until you've changed your mind. If criminals will just find another way, they're nothing but a waste of taxpayer money and visitor time. If gun control gives criminals all the power, then those metal detectors are threats to the safety of everyone behind them. If reasonable, common sense security measures are violations of our civil liberties, then those metal detectors, located at the heart of our democracy, are an affront to the personal liberty of every American.

After all, it seems only right that members of Congress should be as safe as the average child they represent.

Correction: A previous version of this post incorrectly stated that Virginia allows 16-year-olds to purchase and carry concealed handguns. It is actually Vermont.